What does a 21st-century education really look like?

By Matthew Stein

Once upon a time, one chose between chocolate or vanilla, there was one show playing at the theater, a trip to the grocery store was simple, and cable TV offered 13 channels. Today, we are faced with a plethora of choices… The average home receives 189 TV channels, there are thousands of ice cream flavors, more than ten movies are playing at any given theater, and the average supermarket carries over 48,750 items. Today, prospective college students have over 7,000 institutions of higher education to choose from and many are making decisions based on “the experience” of attending a particular institution more than ever.

This experience goes much further than academics, athletics and a school’s proximity to entertainment. These items are certainly accounted for in the decision making process, but more and more is being driven by the infrastructure and development schools are constructing and the positive effect this has on quality of life for students. Schools recognize this and are focusing on this infrastructure as a means to attract students.

New developments are often designed and funded through third-party contracts because of the existing economic landscape. Fortunately, the development and professional service community that supports institutions of higher education is hyper focused on meeting the needs of their partners and improving the student experience. Many of the projects the industry has celebrated over the past few years are providing amenities that are intended to improve this experience. These amenities vary from campus-to-campus and project-to-project, but are always designed with the intention of providing an experience to the people who live, work and play in these buildings.

Often, these new projects are mixed-use developments. Retail on and around college campus is being viewed as an amenity for the student; but, when done correctly, it has the potential to engage the surrounding neighborhoods and improve the experience for the community at large.

The Chestnut Square development at Drexel University is an excellent example of this. It was recently awarded the “Best Implementation of Mixed-Use in an Existing or New Development” by Student Housing Business. This project was developed by American Campus Communities (ACC) and designed by Robert A.M. Stern. MSC U was engaged for the retail planning and procurement of tenants, the project had a number of goals: improve the student experience, create a new campus edge, engage the surrounding community, attract and retain students on-campus, provide a vibrant retail corridor, and create a pedestrian “experience”.

It is important to explore how facilities support and enhance one’s education. Architects and developers are creating spaces that support and enhance learning. Design plays an instrumental role in how a consumer “chooses” a school. As the consumers are changing, the schools are responding by providing different types of amenities in their buildings as part of a well-rounded academic experience and creating an environment conducive to academic achievement. These buildings offer amenities such as group learning spaces, study rooms, athletic facilities, technology, and now, retail choices. These “amenities” help attract and retain the best and brightest to campus.

Today’s prospective college students (and his/her family) isn’t just looking at a university’s academic reputation in making their decision, but visiting schools to find out what the campus “feels like”. In other words, they are searching for the holistic experience of attending an institution. In turn, schools are recognizing the competitiveness of this landscape in attracting students and their families (the “consumers”) to their campus and are trying to differentiate themselves from other schools. These consumers are considering not just the offerings of the institution itself, but the offerings of the surroundings and the experience they can provide, which is what makes for an enticing campus environment.